Students from two Oakland high schools propose initiative on ballot to do away with college tuition

Melissa Simon

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At the beginning of the fall semester of the 2010-11 school year, a group of high school students in Oakland decided to take action against tuition costs by proposing an initiative for the ballot that calls for California to return to the days of free college.

The group is composed of students from two Oakland high schools: Oakland Unity High School and Life Academy School of Health and Bioscience.

Richard Boettner, a math teacher at Life Academy, said the students involved were supported by teachers from various schools.

“Students at each of the schools divided into groups and devised plans for a ballot initiative that would fund college education,” Boettner said. “They researched different ways to raise the funding, who would benefit and what restrictions or requirements there would be.”

After each group presented their idea, a vote took place to narrow it down to the two best proposals, one representing each school.

Suneal Kolluri, an economics and U.S. government teacher at Life Academy, said the students learned about the ballot initiative process in their class.

“In the midst of numerous increases in fees at public universities, the students debated how to best make college more affordable and accessible for students in California,” Kolluri said. “The ‘College for California’ proposal was the result.”

Before the initiative is officially on the ballot, “College for California” needs to receive 807,615 signatures, according to Kara Duros, history and social sciences teacher at Oakland Unity High School. In order to get signatures, Duros said the group is relying completely on volunteers.

“We are using high school and college students on campuses across the state to help us gather signatures,” Duros said. “Anyone who is eligible to vote can download and print the petition from the website.”
Kolluri noted social media users will also be important in getting the word out for the proposal.

“On Facebook, we currently have nearly 1,000 likes and are using that as a means to spread the word,” Kolluri said.

According to the proposal, those with a personal income of more than $250,000 would have 0.7 percent added to their tax rate and those making more than $500,000 would pay an additional 1.7 percent.
This money would be used to pay the tuition for full-time undergraduate California residents.

All eligible California residents would no longer have to pay tuition or fees for four years while attending a CSU or UC as long as they maintain a 2.7 GPA or (complete) 70 hours of community service,” Boettner said.
Steve Boilard, managing principal analyst for education at the Legislative Analyst’s Office, said the GPA set by the initiative is somewhat of a judgment call.

“I appreciate the (group’s) principle in saying that if students get a full ride that they have to maintain some academic excellence,” Boilard said. “But a 2.7 GPA is on the low end for a UC student.”
Evan Sata, junior computer engineering student at CSUN, notes that a 2.7 is low even for CSUN.

Maybe the (proposal’s) requirements should be a hair more restrictive,” he said.

If the proposal were to go into effect, university funding would be affected in some way, according to Boilard.

“A major source of funding is tuition, and if the proposal goes through, universities could lose funding,” Boilard said. “It is possible that the tax to pay for tuition won’t provide enough money to backfill the loss, but funding is pretty unpredictable.”

Boilard believes universities will need to cut costs somewhere, and that may mean looking at officials’ salaries.

“The proposal doesn’t mention any affect on officials’ salaries but if not enough money is generated, the universities will have to find a way to reduce costs,” he said.

The key question is how the costs should be split between students and taxpayers, according to Boilard.

The initiative essentially says taxpayers should bear the burden.

“Instead of focusing on reducing the sticker cost, we should target those with financial need using financial aid,” Boilard said.